Portland Pilots Spring Forth
It was another productive spring for the Portland Pilots men's soccer program.
With an eye on taking the Pilots deeper into the NCAA tournament, coach Nick Carlin-Voigt found some promising recruits, saw good things from returning players in spring matches and rebuilt his coaching staff.
But the best news for Portland and its fans was that Carlin-Voigt remained at the helm.
UCLA was searching for its next head coach, and Carlin-Voigt was a candidate. Given his connection to UCLA — he was an assistant coach for the Bruins when Portland hired him in 2016 — and given that program's resources and history of success, it made sense to think Carlin-Voigt might see it as an opportunity too good to pass up.
UCLA did express interest, but Carlin-Voigt stayed put.
"For me, we put our roots in here," he says. "I've made a commitment to continue to grow and elevate the program, a commitment to our players and to our staff. We feel like this is a top job. And this is a place that continues to grow and evolve.
"It's always nice to be attached to job openings and storied programs, but I like our underdog mentality here. I like that we can continue to operate at a national level."
The Pilots have made the NCAA playoffs in two of their three seasons under Carlin-Voigt. They went 12-4-3 last season, losing at Kentucky in the second round of the postseason. Their 1-0 first-round home win over UCLA is still fresh in Carlin-Voigt's mind when he talks about the magic of Merlo Field and the opportunity to build something special at Portland.
The process of preparing for 2019 has included more recruiting success and the hiring of two assistant coaches after Leonard Griffin took the head coaching job at San Francisco and Logan Emory moved to an assistant coaching position for Michelle French and the Pilot women's soccer program.
Former Timbers midfielder Ben Zemanski recently joined the UP men's staff, and Austin Nyquist was promoted to full-time assistant coach, joining goalkeepers coach Emerson De Oliveira. Nyquist was the Pilots' director of performance analysis last season.
The coaching staff turnover did not prevent the Pilots from a productive spring, according to Carlin-Voigt.
"We had a good spring season. I think we've evolved in how we played. We've made some tactical changes," he says.
The Pilots had three wins and three losses in spring exhibition, beating Denver, a Nike Swoosh squad and a team of UP alums, and losing to Oregon State and Washington and Portland Timbers 2.
Carlin-Voigt envisions a team that possesses the ball more and builds attacking chances. With Benji Michel's speed, the Pilots have thrived as a quick counterattacking team.
After scoring 11 goals last fall despite being slowed by a foot injury, Michel is with Orlando City in MLS. Through last week he had appeared in four MLS games, making one start.
Second-leading scorer Malcolm Dixon (four goals) was a senior, so the Pilots will need to find other ways to score.
Replacing Michel's double-digit goals — he scored 31 over three seasons — will be a challenge.
"The reality is you can't (replace Michel's production)," Carlin-Voigt says. "Benji was one of the most dynamic forwards in all of college soccer. The part that's important is that was three years in the making. He didn't come out of the box like that. He was here, and he developed."
Two players who grew their game alongside Michel the past three years — midfielder Gio Magana-Rivera and winger Rey Ortiz — will be counted on for big things in 2019.
"Gio has to emerge and has to add more goals and final product to his game," the coach says. "Gio has that in his locker, and now as a senior he has to be someone who drives the team forward along with Rey Ortiz."
Ortiz had an injury-plagued junior season after finishing second nationally in goals as a sophomore in 2017.
"Rey is one of the most electric, unpredictable, powerful one-v-one players on the West Coast. We need Rey to get back to the form that he was in 2017," Carlin-Voigt says.
In the spring, Ortiz played multiple positions.
"He's such a good ball striker, we want him to find ways to get in front of goal more often," Carlin-Voigt says.
Attacking help is on the way. Kevin Ogudugo, a freshman forward, arrives this season from Norway. Jacobo Reyes is a winger from the youth academy of Mexican club Monterrey and has played on United States youth national teams. Michael Hamilton, a Spanish wing, transferred to Portland from Saginaw Valley State with two seasons of eligibility.
Portland recently signed Ben Ortiz, a freshman forward from Utah and the Real Salt Lake youth academy.
As of mid-June nine newcomers had signed with the Pilots in 2019, a recruiting cycle in which several verbally committed players turned pro instead of choosing college soccer.
"This is the climate we're operating in with college soccer," Carlin-Voigt says. "We were able to have a real deep recruiting board" and adjust as recruits decided to turn pro.
Another trend in college men's soccer is a consistent flow of players from Europe seeking college opportunities in America.
Hamilton and German midfielder Yusuf Cueceoglu, a transfer from Villanova, enrolled in time to participate for the Pilots this spring.
Another transfer coming to Portland is defender Michael Barrow, a Liverpool, England, native who played two seasons at Campbell College.
The Pilots also added 2018 Missouri Valley Conference goalkeeper of the year Josh Lagudah. An Australian of Ghanian descent, Lagudah was among the top keepers in the nation last season at Loyola Chicago. He has one year of eligibility and will compete with Nico Campuzano, who was the Pilots' No. 1 goalkeeper this spring.
Another 2019 commit is defender Delenze Pierre. He will be a freshman and in the fall played for the Real Salt Lake Academy.
The back line returns three starters but must replace the leadership of center back Lionel Mills. One candidate for the role will be Brian O'Hara, a 2018 transfer from Cal who redshirted last season. He played on successful youth teams for the L.A. Galaxy Academy.
The spring was a development opportunity for celebrated freshmen — Greg Tracey, Jake Arteaga, Kelee Cornfield-Saunders and RJ Stretch — who played significant minutes last fall.
Two members of the 2018 class, forward Alejandro Pereira and left back Tristan Weber, missed the spring with injuries.
Costa Rican right back Esteban Calvo returns as team captain and the starter at right back, and center back Francesco Tiozzo returns for his senior season.
Despite reaching the second round of the NCAA tourney, the 2018 season might have been a bigger breakthrough season if not for the injuries that hampered Michel and Ortiz.
"In some ways, we overachieved. We would like to have been a little bit healthier at the end of the season," Carlin-Voigt says. "The college season is really a sprint, it's not a marathon. It's a very quick season, and you have to have a good schedule, you have to keep your players healthy and you have to step up and win big games. Not just at home but on the road."
That road will include non-conference games at Wisconsin, Washington and Seattle this year.
The Pilots will open with exhibitions at Merlo Field on Aug. 18 against Oregon State and Aug. 23 against Utah Valley.
Portland's first counting matches are at home Aug. 30 against Colgate and Sept. 1 against Coastal Carolina. The Pilots also have home games against George Washington, Davidson, Cal State Northridge, UC Riverside and California.
In a change that Carlin-Voigt has advocated since arriving at Portland, the West Coast Conference schedule no longer features two-game weekends. With the exception of a midweek home match with WCC traveling partner Gonzaga, conference matches will be played on Saturdays.
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